MANCHESTER, England — The roads around Old Trafford were gridlocked in the buildup to kick-off, and men in hi-vis jackets were charging £20 and more for spaces on waste ground that had been turned into popup car parks for the night. This is what usually happens when Manchester United play at home, but the fact that this was for an England women’s game was a clear indication of the incredible growth of the sport and why Euro 2022 is set to break all kinds of records.
On the pitch, a 16th-minute goal by Beth Mead was enough to seal a 1-0 win for the Lionesses in the tournament opener against Austria and ensure that Sarina Wiegman’s team justified their status as one of the favourites to win the tournament (stream the replay in the U.S.). It was nervy at times and England should have won by three or four in the end, but the opening night of the 13th UEFA European Women’s Championship was about what happened off the pitch.
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The last time England hosted the Women’s Euros, in 2005, the tournament was staged in its entirety in the northwest of England, with an average attendance of 7,894 during the competition. Even in the most recent staging of the Women’s Euros — in the Netherlands in 2017 — the average attendance was once again below 8,000 at 7,743. On Wednesday, Old Trafford was a virtual sellout with 68,871 fans inside the stadium — a new record crowd for the tournament.
There will be an even bigger crowd at Wembley Stadium for the final on July 31, with all tickets already sold for a game that may just see England win the tournament for the first time and become the first senior England team to win a major competition since the men’s World Cup triumph in 1966.
But whether or not England go all the way — and they face stern competition from Sweden, France, Spain and Germany — the ultimate winner of Euro 2022 will be the women’s game because, as the traffic chaos outside Old Trafford showed, it is now a major event whenever the Lionesses play.
“The amount of people that turned up was amazing,” said midfielder Georgia Stanway. “The occasion was massive.”
The names of star players such as Mead, Stanway, Lucy Bronze, Leah Williamson and Fran Kirby were on the backs of thousands of England shirts worn by young girls in the crowd — and their parents — and they now stand alongside the likes of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford as idols in their own right.
The growth of the Women’s Super League since its formation in 2011 has been rapid and every major Premier League team now treats the women’s game as seriously as the men’s. It is why participation numbers of women in football have risen sharply in recent years.
According to data collated by the English Football Association, 1.7 million women over the age of 16 played the game in 2018 — that number had grown to 2.63m in 2021.The number of registered women’s team has mushroomed from 6,000 to 12,000 over the same period.
But despite the development of the women’s game, FA chief executive Mark Bullingham responded to criticism earlier this month of the choice of venues for Euro 2022 by saying that “very few” clubs put their hands up as potential hosts during the application process in 2019.
“We actually had to persuade a few clubs and cities to come forward,” Bullingham said.
United were keen to offer Old Trafford — English football’s biggest club stadium — as the venue for the opening game, however, and the huge attendance underlined the passion for the women’s game which is rocketing in the country.
It was a different crowd to the usual Old Trafford turnout, with families and groups of young girls with their football teams populating the stadium. And while there was a sprinkling of boos at the start of the Austrian national anthem, it seemed more playful than spiteful and the atmosphere was joyous throughout.
The detractors will point out that ticket prices are a fraction of those for men’s tournaments — £10 for adults and £5 for under-16s are the cheapest tickets — and that attendances will be high as a consequence, but discounted or not, spectators will not attend an event if they have no interest in it. With over 500,000 sold for the tournament so far, that points to plenty of interest from fans all over the country.
And it is not just England. When Barcelona played Wolfsburg in the Champions League in April, 91,648 turned up Camp Nou to record the biggest-ever attendance for a woman’s game in Europe.
But with big interest comes big pressure and England are expected to win this tournament and be crowned European champions for the first time.
Prior to the game against Austria, England had won every game under Wiegman since her appointment last September, scoring 84 goals and conceding just three, but the heat is on when you are the host nation and everyone believes you can win.
But England are over the first hurdle by winning game one and, for once, Old Trafford was able to witness a home team controlling the game and getting the result at the end of it.
Next up in Group A are games against Norway in Brighton and Northern Ireland in Southampton. More expectancy and more full stadiums, but that’s where the women’s game is at now and it is a mark of how important it has become.